Washington National Airport (DCA)
The delay getting de-iced had cost them three places in the line-up, First Officer Paul Allison observed as he looked across Runway 03 towards the hold pad adjacent to Runway 36. The pad was full—six jets lined up and waiting for the last plows to clear the north end of the runway.
Now that they had the departure runway in sight, the issue was how long the de-ice fluid would last. De-icing had ended at 1510; it was now 1515. The rule of thumb was de-icing was good for 30 minutes in light snow, 20 minutes in moderate snow, 10 minutes in heavy snow. Allison estimated the snowfall was moderate, if not heavy. That gave them twenty minutes at most. They needed to be rolling down the runway not later than 1530.
Paul leaned as far as he could against the sidewall of the cockpit and peered out his side window at the right wing. From the cockpit of a 737, you couldn’t see much looking aft, not even your own engine. Even with his nose pressed against the window, all he could see was the outer twenty feet of the wing’s leading edge. But it looked clear of snow and ice. That was a good thing.
Settling back in his seat, out of the corner of his left eye, Paul noticed *MSG* flashing at the bottom of the ACARS data-link screen. He touched the screen and a message popped up. Before he could read it, sharp rapping on the cockpit door behind him distracted him.
Rachel stepped into the cockpit looking quite alarmed. “Paul, some passengers are saying that there’s still some snow covering one of the wings. I went back and took a look, and they’re right. It’s the aircraft-left wing.”
“Are you serious?”
“One of the passengers is a Navy pilot. He overheard me talking to the other passengers from across the aisle and looked at it with me. He says the right wing’s fine but the left wing still has snow on it. Apparently, the de-ice truck didn’t finish the job.”
“Damn!” Paul shook his head in dismay at the thought of going back to de-ice again and the hour or more delay this represented. He turned to Captain Donald Kallstadt and sighed with exasperation. “I’ll call Ground and tell them we need to go back.”
Kallstadt glared at him. “No! The left wing is fine! I looked out the window myself and it is clean! Now give me the before takeoff checklist!”
Before Paul could point out that only the outermost portion of the wing’s leading edge was visible from the cockpit side windows, Rachel blurted, “But captain, I looked out the window myself! The wing has snow on it!”
Kallstadt twisted savagely in his seat. “Woman, this is none of your business! I am the captain!” he snarled. “Get out of my cockpit and close the door!”
Rachel’s face turned crimson, like she had been slapped. “You can’t be serious . . .”
“I said, get out of my cockpit!” Flecks of spittle flew from Kallstadt’s lips as he shouted. “That’s an order!”
Stunned into silence, Rachel turned her head and made eye contact with Paul.
Paul nodded grimly to her. This isn’t over.
With that assurance, Rachel wheeled out of the cockpit, slamming the door. In the silence that followed her departure, Paul glanced down and read the ACARS message:
AST 451 * CALL GLOBAL * 122.95
Paul touched the flashing *ACK* symbol at the bottom of the screen to acknowledge he had received the message. Why Operations had sent the ACARS message was unclear until he reached down to tune the comm panel and realized that comm-2 radio was still set on ATIS frequency, monitoring the airport departure information.
Paul pieced together what had happened: during de-icing, under the threat of cancellation of their pushback clearance, Captain Kallstadt had looked out and saw the left wingtip clean, and told the tug driver to push them back—right out from under the de-ice boom!
With the de-ice truck’s VHF radio inoperative, no doubt the driver had used his F.M. handheld to relay a message via Global’s dispatcher, but by the time Global called on the VHF radio, Paul had switched over to the ATIS frequency. Global’s dispatcher had contacted AST operations, which sent the ACARS message.
Indignation mounting at the thought of Captain K’s reckless behavior, Paul felt a tightening in his chest. He took several deep breaths.
Be cool . . . be cool . . . be cool . . .
With trembling hands, he dialed in the Global De-ice frequency on the comm-two control head and flipped the switch to make 122.95 active. Watching him, Kallstadt reached across the center pedestal and flipped the switch back. “Don’t call,” he ordered.
“What do you mean, don’t call?” Paul sputtered in disbelief.
“I will decide who we talk to — not you! I am captain!”
Paul replied in the most reasonable voice he could muster, “Look, Donald, this is ridiculous. You have passengers in the back who—”
“You DO NOT call me Donald!” Kallstadt said, his voice rising. “You will call me CAPTAIN! Is this understood?”
Paul saw Captain K’s chest heaving, his face twisted in fury, and decided the issue was not the snow on the wing, but Kallstadt’s perception that his authority was being challenged.
By his upbringing and years of military habit, Paul’s instinct was to play the game with Kallstadt. He swallowed his pride and said, “My apologies, Captain.”
Kallstadt glared at him for a long moment. Paul watched his features slowly relax as it registered that respect had been proffered. Captain K turned his eyes forward. Gazing out the windscreen, he repeated his prior command. “Before takeoff checklist.”
Hearing Kallstadt’s order, for a few seconds Paul experienced the most curious feeling of separation, as if he had somehow disconnected from his body.
At the Air Force Academy, the subject of unlawful orders received considerable attention, and was the subject of heated debate in the course on military law Allison took in his senior year. While these academic lessons resided on some level in his consciousness, they did not leap to mind. Instead, he recalled the advice given to him by Commander Dave Fisher—a mentor and second father to Paul, a relationship that went back to his cadet days. A former navy carrier pilot and squadron commander, Fisher’s favorite aviation maxim was simple:
“Some of the best flying you’ll ever do is when you decide not to fly.”
In spite of the highly charged situation, Paul felt supernaturally calm. Every sense seemed heightened. He smelled the rank odor of sweat and tobacco pour off Kallstadt. He saw a muscle twitch in the corner of the captain’s eye. He heard Rachel move on the other side of the cockpit door. His mouth was filled with a dull metallic taste; his tongue was so dry that he could hardly speak. But he knew what he had to do. He replied to the captain, “No.”
Kallstadt turned his head, eyes narrowed menacingly. “What do you mean, no?”
Paul found his voice. “No means no, captain. I’m not running the before takeoff checklist and we’re not taking off. This airplane goes down the runway over my dead body. Now I suggest you do the smart thing turn us around. I’ll call Ground for you.”
“NO!” howled Kallstadt, his face screwed in unrestrained rage. “WE WILL GO!”
Every muscle in his body trembling, Paul took a slow breath and uttered the hardest words he had ever spoken. “Captain, either you are sick or mentally ill . . . if you don’t return this aircraft to the gate, I will be forced to relieve you of command.”